Roberta F. King

Author site for the memoir, He Plays a Harp and other writing by Roberta F. King

13 January
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Book Grouping

Through people I know or people who know people, I’ve been invited to talk with a few book groups over the last half year. I’d envisioned book groups as part of my author’s role and believe that if there’s six or so people who have all bought or borrowed my book, I should make an effort to be present with them. The relational nature of He Plays a Harp also lends itself to intimate discussions like those in a book group.

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My boss Diana and her friend Jeanne.

My boss hosted an elaborate dinner party for her book group. There were eight women at her house and they asked thoughtful and probing questions, before, during and after dinner. It was a little bit like Trivial Pursuit, I sat with them working my memory hard to recall the specific chapters or sections they were talking about and my motivation and thought process for the choices I made some five years ago. A book group isn’t a place where you can dodge a response or give the short answer, your audience is right next to you on the sofa or across the dining room table. When things got quiet among the members, I offered to read, picking one of the book’s short chapters.

My high school English teacher, Mr. Schelhaas suggested my book to a group he knew that had been reading together for more than 30 years. Five older ladies and I drank wine and snacked on cheese before a soup and bread lunch. We played Dutch BINGO to see who knew who and how. I learned that a few of the women lived a street away from my childhood home, one taught choir at my former high school and most were family friends, Aunts or neighbors of kids I went to school with. I enjoyed the connection. They told me they were grateful for the honesty of my book and appreciated that I didn’t hide any of the bad and ugly parts of Noah’s life and death. The readers specifically mentioned the strength of my relationship with Mike. It was wonderful to know that even without writing it purposefully, I’d shown the depth of our marriage and Mike’s personal character. I read them a chapter I’d never read aloud before, that was mostly about Mike and I tried not to choke. It made me proud that they could see what a great dad he had been to Noah. The ladies and I talked about faith and loss. I said books and stories where people are hurt, pray and magically recover seem fake to me. “Maybe I’m not a believer in the quick fix.” I don’t know if they agreed.

Must Love Dogs Book Group

Must Love Dogs book group

My friend Juanita’s group consisted of writers around my same age—like me, they were public relations and marketing types. We met in a noisy restaurant over supper and half off wine. We talked about motivation, finding time to write and read; process, publication challenges, writing classes vs. groups, platforms and all that writerly minutiae that authors love to talk about. Several of the women had books in progress or almost completed projects that sounded worthy of publication. It was fun to pretend I was an expert as I shared the story of how He Plays a Harp came to be a book, but I didn’t read for them.

 

If you are in a book group and would like to read and discuss He Plays a Harp, please contact me at: he.plays.a.harp@gmail.com

26 October
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Days of the Dead

Papier mache skull for Noah’s shrine.

I made my first shrine for Noah on a Sunday afternoon ten months after his death. At Mass that All Saints Day morning, I was shaken from my reverie when our priest read the names of parishioners who’d died that year. “Noah William Miesch,” he said. Noah was included on a list of people I only vaguely knew, older people mostly shut-ins and the very ill whose names I’d seen week after week in the parish bulletin. That day we were urged to remember our dead loved ones, so I came home from church and built a shrine on the kitchen cupboard with a box of pasta, a photograph of Noah and a SpongeBob toy.

Over the last eight years, I’ve created increasingly elaborate shrines for Noah and incorporated some traditional Dias de los Muertos objects—mostly skulls and skeletons—which Noah liked. Oddly, the last Halloween Noah was alive we were at Mackinac Island and he dressed as a skeleton for the festivities there. I place that ironic photograph on the shrine each year. Day of the Dead celebrates the lives of people who have died, not that they are dead. This is the message I tell people who are interested in my book, too.

I’m careful to not commandeer this holiday, being sensitive that my ethnic heritage is mostly Swedish, not Mexican. I think respectful cultural appropriation is okay—it’s part of being a citizen of the world and forming relationships with people who are different than me. Adopting cultural traditions is part of being inclusive and being included.

I’m happy to share that I’ve created a shrine for Noah that will be on view at Grand Rapids Public Library starting October 29. There are a lot of shrines at the library each year and I hope you’ll take the time to stop by to see them. On Saturday, November 1 at 1:30 PM, I’ll talk about my altar along with with other altar-makers and I’ll be reading a bit from my memoir He Plays a Harp, too. Come celebrate.

Photo of Noah as a skeleton. He’s with Mike and Tasha.

23 September
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The Right Fit

I like finding signs in life. It pleases me when the cosmos give me a hint that things are aligned, or not. A year ago today, I designated September 23 as “Manuscript Pitch Day.” It would have been Noah’s 25th birthday and I took the day off from work. The day was to be devoted to sending my manuscript to the world, in hopes of publication.

When He Plays a Harp was published, Principia brought me a box.

When He Plays a Harp was published, Principia brought me a box.

I’d long prepared for this day: revising, editing, engaging pre-readers and reading dozens of literary agent and small press blogs. I dove deep into tips and editor/agent interviews in publications like Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest. I created a list of 50 literary agents and made a spreadsheet of their query requirements. I wrote pitch letters that were personalized and charming. All along in this process, I held onto an article I’d read a year earlier in The Grand Rapids Press. It was about a local publishing company, a start up, called Principia Media. I read the company’s blog and was a Facebook follower. I felt a connection—they were politically progressive and our values were closely aligned. I hoped my book was for them.

The day I sent out my pitches, I braced myself for the onslaught of rejection that the magazines promised me would come. I kept hoping, though, that Principia would want to read my full manuscript, they just seemed right to me. While a New York agent and publisher would have been fine and the idea of fame was fun, I really wanted a company with whom I could form a long-term, genuine relationship. Someone who understood He Plays a Harp wasn’t a transactional book and while making money and selling books was important to me; connecting with readers was just as important.

We celebrated Noah’s 25th birthday that night by sending off a sky lantern. As the lantern blew across Muskegon Lake, I made a quick wish that my manuscript would find a home and become a book. It knew it would be the best way to honor Noah’s life.

The following days I obsessively checked my email for responses—and sure enough—rejections were coming in. Within a week though, I’d heard from two agents who was interested and one publisher—Principia. As soon as the manuscript was accepted by Principia, I contacted the agents who were still considering and told them I’d found a publisher. I’ve always felt it was better to reject before you’re rejected. I have no regrets about my decision to use a local small press publisher.

Working with Principia has brought some great people into my life. CEO Vern Jones and his wife Irene are as kind and compassionate as any two people I know; Dirk Wierenga brought a significant amount of book design, publishing and book distribution knowledge to the table and public relations director, Julie Hurley worked with local bookstores and wrote my first press release for me.

Everyone at Principia worked hard from the start to make sure He Plays a Harp was well edited, proofed, beautifully designed and readily available to readers. They’ve supported me with their presence and their commitment to me as an author. I feel a bond with them that I don’t think would exist if I’d found a publisher outside of Michigan or one who was more interested in making money than sharing Noah’s story.